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Finest route in the High Sierra? Introducing the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

Lake Basin. Before Mather Pass and the Golden Staircase were constructed, the John Muir Trail cut through here, over Cartridge Pass. No trails lead here now, and as a result its one of the most sublime corners of the High Sierra.

Lake Basin. Before Mather Pass and the Golden Staircase were constructed, the John Muir Trail cut through here, over Cartridge Pass. No trails lead here now, and as a result its one of the most sublime corners of the High Sierra.

Seven years ago I thru-hiked with Buzz Burrell the Sierra High Route, which parallels the crest of the High Sierra between Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park. Its 200 miles represents less than 1 percent of the total miles that I have hiked, yet the experience proved to be one of the most influential: it revealed to me the grander sense of adventure when off-trail.

I followed up with a traverse of Iceland, the Hayduke Trail, and a few neat trips in Alaska. And when I began offering guided backpacking trips in 2011, exploring remote terrain via off-trail travel was a primary focus on the longer and more advanced itineraries. Thank you, Steve Roper, for inspiring what I’ve done since 2008 while wearing a backpack.

A few months ago in “Short is the new long,” I wrote vaguely about my future backpacking plans. Rather than single expeditions lasting multiple months and covering thousands of miles, my emerging interest is shorter routes that showcase a single topographic feature like a mountain range, watershed, or canyon system. Not only are such routes more practical for a husband and home-owner, but they can sustain a higher level of overall awesomeness than longer trails or routes, which invariably include mind-numbingly boring “transition” miles between worthy sections.

The rugged and remote Ionian Basin. The Three Sisters, which sit below and to the left of Scylla, marks the entrance to Enchanted Gorge.

The rugged and remote Ionian Basin. The Three Sisters, which sit below and to the left of Scylla, marks the entrance to Enchanted Gorge.

Today I’m thrilled to introduce my first original project, which I stitched together over two summers. The 124-mile Kings Canyon High Basin Route circumnavigates the upper watershed of California’s Kings River and is encompassed entirely within Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. It’s an instant classic, and I believe it’s at least on par with the original, Roper’s Sierra High Route, for being the finest route in the High Sierra.

World-class terrain and scenery

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park (SEKI) is huge. It’s bigger than its more famous neighbor to the north, Yosemite, and more than 50 percent bigger than the Smokies. The topography is so intense that a road has never been built across it. It is home to all thirteen of the peaks in the High Sierra exceeding 14,000 feet. And it’s incised by the snowmelt-filled Kings River and its tributaries, which have at one point cut a 8,200-foot deep canyon.

Sequoia-Kings is also God’s country: majestic alpine lakes, glacier-polished granite, and reliably blue summer skies. It’s not always perfect: early-season river fords can be terrifying, the first hatch of mosquitoes is terrible, and bushwhacks through low-elevation chaparral is heinous. But but if I had to pick one place to backpack for the rest of my life, SEKI would be a top contender.

The Kings Canyon High Basin Route explores this terrain in grand style. Many park highlights are on it, including Tablelands, Cloud Canyon, the Great Western Divide, Enchanted Gorge, and the Cirque Crest, plus the route’s namesake basins that are perched just west of the main Sierra divide — Gardiner, Arrow, Lake, Dumbbell, and Ionian. There are 16 passes above 11,000 feet, every single one off-trail; the highest, Longley, is at 12,434. Finally, the KCHBR provides a unique experience in the park, generally staying far away from other long-distance trails and routes like the John Muir Trail, High Sierra Trail, and Sierra High Route.

Exposed campsite at 11,400 way above Cloud Canyon with views of the mighty Great Western Divide, home to eight 13'ers

Exposed campsite at 11,400 way above Cloud Canyon with views of the mighty Great Western Divide, home to eight 13’ers

Continuity and “flow”

Two-thirds of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route — specifically, 82 of its 124 miles — is officially off-trail. Five of these segments are longer than 10 miles, and one extends for 21! Save for the very beginning, very end, and 11 miles on the High Sierra Highway (aka John Muir Trail) in the middle, its on-trail miles are typically on lightly traveled pathways deep in the backcountry.

Due to its primitiveness, run-ins with other backcountry users are infrequent, and likely non-existent when off-trail. More importantly, the route has a nearly uninterrupted identity, with each segment naturally flowing into the next. Unlike the Sierra High Route or its proposed southern extension, which often alternate between exciting off-trail legs and relatively mundane stretches on the overcrowded JMT, the KCHBR almost never feels like a disjointed experience. In this sense, it’s more similar to the Wind River High Route, which also feels high and lonesome for nearly its entire length.

White Fork Pass, looking down on the South Fork and across towards Cartridge Pass

White Fork Pass, looking down on the South Fork and across towards Cartridge Pass

Logistical considerations

Truthfully, a debate over the the qualitative merits of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route and Sierra High Route would not be productive. They are unique routes, both superb, and deserve inclusion on the bucket list of every skilled and ambitious backpacker.

There is one distinct advantage of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, however: logistics. Its south and north termini, Lodgepole and Road’s End, are separated by just a 2-hour drive and one road junction. This proximity makes feasible a car shuttle or hitchhike. Also, there is no need to get from one side of the range to the other, fly into and out of two different airports, or spend hours in a bus on I-395. Logistics can be simplified even more by connecting the termini on foot with 30 extra trail miles.

The Kings Canyon High Basin Route is also section-hiker-friendly. The reality is that very few backpackers have the time, desire, or ability to take on all 124 miles in one go. For section-hikers, I have outlined nine loop hikes ranging from 30 to 80 miles, and many more itineraries are possible.

From Windy Ridge, on one of the section-hike loops, looking up LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River, up which the JMT goes towards Muir Pass

From Windy Ridge, on one of the section-hike loops, looking up LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River, up which the JMT goes towards Muir Pass

Get more information

On the Kings Canyon High Basin Route minisite, I have posted a significant amount of information that will help backpackers gauge their interest in the route, assess its appropriateness for them, and to gain a general understanding of the scheduling and travel options.

To thru-hike or section-hike the route, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route Guide is extraordinarily useful, if not essential. It contains detailed route descriptions, annotated topographic maps, and useful databooks, plus additional planning information about permits, regulations, transportation, resupply, and more.

The First Edition of the Guidebook will be available by June 1, 2015, as an electronic download. Pre-ordering customers can download immediately the Pre-Edition and will be upgraded when the First Edition is ready. A physical guidebook is being considered, but one will not be available in the immediate future.

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16 Responses to Finest route in the High Sierra? Introducing the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

  1. Tim McElhannon April 12, 2015 at 4:34 am #

    I am so happy to read about this new route in the Sierras. I first visited SEKI in 1988 with my young family and explored the area on skis. This sounds like a great trip and I will purchase the guidebook and start dreaming and planning to get back there.

  2. Brian Robinson April 12, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    As one who was by your side as you explored these routes, I can vouch for the awesomeness of this route. Your descriptions might sound a bit hyperbolic to some, but the reality far exceeds expectations.

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2015 at 10:45 am #

      Been a pleasure to have you by my side for all of the recon. Looking forward to getting you out here to Colorado in June — there is another route I want to take you on.

      Your hyperbole comment is appropriate. I’ve called this route one of the finest backpacking routes in the world, which is a tall claim. But I think it’s true: the High Sierra is world-class, and the High Basin Route is arguably the finest route in the High Sierra, which makes it then one of the finest routes in the world.

  3. Blake Boles April 12, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    Really excited for this route, Andrew. I’m living in South Lake Tahoe this summer and could feasibly pull it off. The logistics are especially appealing.

  4. Bob April 12, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

    You are awesome. Thanks for this!

  5. Dave Statzell April 13, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    Looking forward to researching your work first hand … Thank You 🙂

  6. Billy Wade April 27, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    Having grown up backpacking in the Sierras, this sounds absolutely fantastic. Anyone who has packed around these areas knows the Majesty of this area. Sorry, couldn’t think of another word. While the PCT and other long distance trails are amazing, you can spend your summers exploring this area and never need more. Thanks for taking the time to map this out.

    This is truly giving back and its appreciated.

  7. Karl Wilcox April 30, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    Well, the route looks to be a good one, but touting it as the ‘best’ in the Sierra is over the top. Furthermore, some of us out here have been exploring the Sierra for a good 40 years–your trip is not precisely new anymore than 2-3 other backpacking loops that travel variations of your chosen route.

    In the 1970’s, I encountered 3 Fishermen in Cloud Canyon, at least 15 Boy Scouts descending cross-country to Simpson Meadow via a non-existent Basque trail, and about 20 Swedish female Sierra clubbers on Elizabeth pass… folks nowadays just buy gear; back then, they did unestablished trips with frame packs and Galibier mountain boots! We never thought of publishing these trips… we all knew that Norman Clyde had been there before us.

    • Andrew Skurka May 5, 2015 at 10:14 am #

      Any specific examples of routes in the High Sierra that are finer than this one? Indeed, at some point it’s a foolish conversation and entirely subjective, but I think the list of worthy comparisons is pretty short.

      It’s unfortunate that you never published your routes. I’m sure many out there would have appreciated the beta, myself included. I obviously made a different decision.

      I think I made it pretty clear that in sharing this route I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. But that is the nature of human evolution (not just with backpacking but with medicine, business, education, etc.) and it’s a foolish notion that we can’t try to improve upon what others did and/or dust off old information and update it for modern times.

    • betty June 15, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

      so what, Karl. It’s not a competition. Those of us that live far away, work full-time, and are busy raising families appreciate the published ideas of others. thanks Andrew, looking forward to planning this one soon : )

  8. Joel May 2, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    I’m an 33 y.o. experienced strong ultralight backpacker (and have a WFR cert. (if that means anything)). I have thru hiked the PCT and Colorado trail solo. I’m interested in thru hiking the KCHBR. Due to the remoteness of the route would it be too risky to attempt to hike it solo? I am considering renting a spot or sat phone. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka May 5, 2015 at 9:57 am #

      Funny, I just had a long conversation with a hiking partner about this very topic during a long car ride.

      The answer basically comes to this: What is your risk tolerance?

      The KCHBR is a very committing route, and it wouldn’t take much for you to get into trouble (e.g. snag a toe on a rock while in a talus field, slip on a hard snowfield and get banged up on rocks (at least in normal years)). Thankfully, “trouble” probably does not mean you’re incapable of calling for help with a satelite communicator, and it probably wouldn’t take more than a day or two for rangers to reach you. In contrast, I just spent 6 days in southern UT on a route with some un-protectable and airy climbing/scrambling. Trouble there would probably mean death, and it’d take more than a few days for rangers to reach you.

      Given your experience level, if I were in your shoes I would probably try to find a hiking partner, and/or I would take on one of the loop itineraries first. You may have completed the PCT and CT solo, but the KCHBR is an entirely different type of trip that demands skills and emotional maturity that those other trips do not help you develop. Note that when I did my first trip of this type (the SHR in 2008) I partnered with Buzz — I knew I didn’t have the package to safely do the route on my own, even though I had done a lot of solo hikes before that.

  9. Stephen Cunha June 8, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    This type of “route channeling” is doing significant damage to the fragile High Sierra. Let off-trail hikers discover their own routes. In doing so, they disperse in ways that avoids the concentration of hikers in areas without the trail infrastructure and established campsites to minimize their impacts. Please stop trying to make a buck at the expense off the environmental quality of the High Sierra. Let people discover the wilderness on their own.

    • Andrew Skurka June 8, 2015 at 11:48 am #

      Hi Stephen –

      Thanks for your comment. For the record, I too am concerned about damage to the High Sierra caused by hikers. Two comments:

      1. Do you have any hard proof that these types of routes are doing “significant damage” to the High Sierra. I don’t know of any, so such a charge would seem difficult to make. Anecdotal observation is less meaningful; plus, my experience has been the exact the opposite: the off-trail corridors are relatively pristine while the trail corridors are disgustingly abused. I applaud my effort and other efforts like it that help backpackers disperse their use away from areas that are or are becoming so heavily impacted that they are beyond the point of return.

      2. If the National Park Service, which is tasked with managing this area among others for the enjoyment of current and future generations, felt the way that you do, I would have to think that this concern would be addressed in their backcountry management policy. Instead, their recent Wilderness Management Plan expresses no such concern. So I have to ask: Have you contacted the National Park Service with your concern, possibly as part of the WMP process? If not, it seems like you have missed your opportunity to affect policy in the way you hope.

  10. Paul June 10, 2015 at 2:23 am #

    Your photo (http://cdn.andrewskurka.com/wp-content/uploads/windy-ridge.jpg) inspired me to share a great location, one I’ve cherished (after stumbling upon it) that is part of your route. It’s a location that should be shared, I think.

    Years ago (when I lived in the Sierra Nevada), I was in the middle of an 8-day solo trip, and I was standing on Windy Ridge in that very same spot. I was a few miles behind schedule, and torn between continuing on and turning back. Due to a promise to my wife (who trusts me on my solo trips), I decided to cut my trip short right there, staring out over the lake in your photo. So I thought I might as well scoot on down to that lake (I call it Lake 10,300) and camp overnight.

    When I woke up it was clear (typical Sierra Nevada), and here was the view: http://bit.ly/1FIpG6w. Here it is zoomed out a bit: http://bit.ly/1HpTWIb

    Wish I was a better photographer at the time I took it, but you get the picture (pun sort of intended). Beautiful location, in my opinion.

  11. Brian April 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

    Paul,

    What an awesome photograph! I am taking my wife to the Sierras in two months for an 11 day trip. It will be my third trip, for her, it will be the first. She has never been farther west than just west of Chattanooga. She does not quite understand the awesomeness she is about to experience. She thoroughly enjoys the mountains here in PA but I cannot find the words to make her understand that there is no comparison when it comes to the Sierras. I am excited to show her scenes like the ones in your photograph. Awesome picture! Thanks for sharing, it made my day!

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